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Presumed Dead (Part 2)
by Rick Kennett
Half stumbling, almost tumbling, she made her way down the slope to the plain. The need for shelter and overwhelming curiosity had replaced the urgings of caution.
The first wreck she came to was little more than a collapse of iron plates with only a suggestion of a hull shape. A small steamer with a compact superstructure and squat hull offered a dry but debris-strewn interior. Sections of both sides were crushed in, twisted hull plates making seemingly deliberate spikes of malice within. Cy wanted shelter, but not at the risk of cutting herself in half.
The next wreck was more intact, but too close to a swiftly running stream, which she regarded with a feeling bordering on horror. She was Martian enough to know the constant sight and sound of all that water just flowing away, uncontained, unused, would be too disturbing.
Out of sight and sound of that maddening water she found another freighter, somewhat larger and sporting little damage apart from a gaping hole in the starboard side. Into this she climbed, into a kind of dry twilight.
Coming out of the rain was one of the best feelings she’d ever had — certainly the best she could remember right now.
Each cabin was empty, barren of furniture or fittings, smelling slightly of damp. Without thinking why she did so, she chose what had most likely been the captain’s cabin, directly under the bridge.
Then for two days, as the rain stopped and started, stopped and started, she slept, peaceful and dry, waking occasionally to eat and go for short exploratory walks around her ship and outside. A couple of times she tried to talk to the big, black spiders that crawled over her as she lay in her backpack, now stretched out to a sleeping bag. Her only answer was a glare of irritation with their stalked eyes as if to say, “Are you still here?”
On the morning of the third day the rain ceased and Cy took herself up to the bridge of the wreck. From there she watched the last of that long storm sweep off to the south-east. The sky was coming up a pale, washed-out blue, as if scrubbed colourless by the rain. Blue skies always struck her as strange. Martian skies were pink-brown.
The scattered wrecks took on solidity in the strengthening light, their long morning shadows pushing out across the yellow-grey plain.
She took in deep breaths and had a passing fancy of sea air, something she’d experienced only once before during a brief visit to an ocean world.
No dizziness, no more breezing. It was amazing, she reflected, what the human body was capable of doing for itself with a minimum of medication and a maximum of rest.
That sounds like something Dr Norsk might say, Cy thought and laughed aloud. Putting on an ancient, cracked voice she said, “Young De Gerch is coming along nicely. It’s astonishing what the human body is capable of doing for itself with a minimum of medication and a maximum of rest.”
For a moment she pictured the compact sickbay of her frigate Utopia Plain, the only sickbay in a Martian warship decorated with frescoes of Terran landscapes: forests and lakes and rolling green hills. But then Dr Ben Norsk was the only Earth person in an otherwise all-Martian crew. He was also the oldest at one hundred and three, while Cy had been the youngest at seventeen.
Down toward the bows of the wreck Jos, forever sixteen, stood amid spilled anchor chain, staring up at her.
For the first time in days she ignored the ghost, thinking instead and with a touch of sadness of Utopia Plain and how her captain and the doctor would be mourning her supposed death. She hated this twinge of guilt she felt at deceiving them, but it had to be done. Captain Brown would get over it.
A scraping noise heralded a black furry ball forcing its way out of the flared mouth of one of the bridge voice pipes beside the immovable steel wheel of the steering position. As the furry ball pushed out further, eight thin legs unfolded from its sides. A moment more and a spider emerged, flipping out its legs, its eyestalks whipping up into place to blink at Cy before plopping softly to the deck.
“And good morning to you too, Kreeng,” she said, watching the creature scuttle officiously off across the deck on its spidery business. There was, she thought, a certain self-importance, a sort of purposefulness in the comings and goings of the creatures that had prompted her to dub them Kreengs after an officious drill sergeant, instigator of a hundred orientating exercises and route marches across the plains of Mars for her Gartino cadet group. ‘Old Get It Right’ they’d called Kreeng behind his back — and he doubtlessly knew it. The spiders themselves were innocuous enough if not disturbed. But it puzzled Cy that she’d yet to see any of them eat or hunt — not that there was anything for them to eat or hunt. Yellow dirt and stunted saltbush. No other insects, no animal life at all.
She swung herself off the bridge. Sliding down the ladder and onto the deck with a thump of bare feet. Skipping down a steep companionway.
Only the upper spaces of the ship were accessible. Everything below decks disappeared into hard-packed silt. The hatchways were like human hatchways, the bare and empty cabins and spaces were like human cabins and spaces. The shapes of things pointed to the crews and builders of these vessels being humanoid. Nothing gave any indication as to who these people had been, where they went or what had happened. Long ago ships had sunk. Long ago a sea had vanished. That, for the sake of what mental health she still retained, was as far as Cy was willing to ponder. Questions, like the lower works of the ships, disappeared into mystery.
Emerging from the shadows of the hole in the hull, into bright morning light, Cy stepped onto the yellow-grey soil of the plain.
Some little distance away ran the stream that’d disturbed her two days earlier. She made for it now almost without a qualm. Like the rain that once enchanted her had long since lost its magic, so seventeen years of environmental conditioning, horrified at a stream of water running away to nowhere, had been numbed from a mad shriek to a vague uneasiness.
“Where you going?” Jos asked, falling into step beside her.
“To wash. These fatigues are self-cleaning but I’m not.”
“You haven’t really thought this through. Your fatigues won’t last forever. They’re not meant to last more than a few weeks. What are you going to do for clothes in this new life of yours? No animals on this planet, so no furs or skins.”
“Good. I’m no killer. Not any more.” She broke into a jog, pushing a finger down the seam of her tunic, slitting the airtight seal. She smelt old sweat.
“What native plants can you use for fabric?” said Jos, keeping pace beside her. “Do you know how to weave? Can you knit? Can you even sew?”
“I don’t care.” Cy discarded her tunic, flicked off her bra with dexterous thumbs.
“You’re the grasshopper, Cy, and there’ll be no ants to take pity on you when winter comes.”
“What are you yammering about?”
Grasshopper? Ants? Vague memories of childhood fables. She opened the fastening of her pants, skipping out of them and splashed naked into the shallows of the stream. Sharp and cold against ankles, knees, hips, into the water. She dived – and suddenly she was back aboard the shuttle with the sea roaring in her ears, the craft sinking, taking her down …
With a gasp Cy thrust her head above the water and clawed her way back to the shallows, assaulted by too many bad memories: the pain in her head, the slow drift up from black oblivion, the light of an alien noon brightening in her soft helmet visor, a moment of panic as she broke surface, her flailing arm hitting the raft ejected from the shuttle as it sank …
She couldn’t swim. But the buoyancy of the stream was much the same as floating in freefall.
Ducking under again, coming up almost immediately, pushing gently against the slow current, always careful to have her feet in contact with the bottom. Her whole body exhilarated at this immersion in water. Another reason not to go back to a world where water was rationed in eye droppers and treated more preciously than sunheart jewels born in supernovae.
Relaxed and contented for the first time in she didn’t know how long, Cy climbed out and sat on the ground, letting the warmth of the newly risen sun dry her. For a few minutes she gazed at all the dead ships around her; then for a change she watched the stream easing by silver in the morning light.
I could very quickly get used to too much water, yes indeed.
She ran fingers through her short black hair, wet and unruly, and wished she had a comb. A comb … and a mirror. Those, she decided, were the only things she missed from her previous life. More than rank? Yes. More than space travel? Yes. More than the genetically acquired ability to strike with precision against a hideous enemy? Yes!
Leaning out over the bank Cy looked at her image in the water. The eyes didn’t seem right. Hard, staring eyes that had seen too much of space and too much death too soon. The eyes of a young woman grown suddenly old.
Padding back to where she’d tossed her clothes she found they’d disappeared.
Suspecting an act of spite by the dead, she blamed Jos – then saw how impossible this was. Two seconds later she spotted her things crawling off through the saltbush a hundred metres away. Chasing her escaping clothes she discovered a convoy of Kreeng spiders carrying them balanced on their furry backs. Three groups of four, each group forming a diamond shape, carried a single garment as they filed along in measured eight-legged step due west.
Cy darted in, snatched up her tunic and pants, then retreated a few steps to see what would happen.
The two groups of spiders deprived of their cargo abruptly dispersed, scuttling off into the bushes, into wrecks, into the distance. The group carrying her bra continued on, apparently oblivious to what had happened to their fellows. She dressed while following them, sacrificing her bra to curiosity. In freefall it kept her B-cup breasts in place. Down on the ground she could live without it.
The spiders marched on, their legs rippling in unison in an almost hypnotic fashion.
The landscape was less abrupt than the plains of Mars which was jagged with craters and volcanic ejecta. Here it was clean as if sieved and sieved again. It undulated at places, making sweeping rises and slopes. It ridged gently into petrified waves and ramps to nowhere. Yellow-grey sand, saltbush and the funnels and cantered masts of the enigmatic wrecks.
Some of the more distant wrecks shimmered in a morning heat haze. The wind picked up and sang an eerie note through the empty bridge windows of one of the ships as Cy and the spiders passed. It sounded like a ghost; it sounded like air ripping out of the ruptured hull of a crippled shuttle. It sounded like this whole vast plain had found a voice and was telling her something she could not understand.
She gave the wreck a long sideways glance, hoping not to see watching figures on its deck or faces pressed to its portholes.
No figures, but those portholes, those windows like watching eyes, were everywhere and all around.
Soon they were climbing the rising ground leading to the hills bracketing the plain in the west. A few minutes later the spiders stopped and with clicking claws threw her bra into an oblong hole. Immediately afterwards they crawled off back towards the wrecks, separating as they went.
The hole was long and wide and about four metres deep: a giant’s grave, though no dead colossus lay within. Her bra sat atop a pile of dead saltbush and scraps of mushroom tree.
A refuse pit? Cy looked about. No other Kreengs were approaching. She sat down to wait. Jos in her blue and white vacuum suit sat down to wait with her.
“You were thinking just now of how the Captain would be mourning you. Doctor Norsk too. Funny you never thought of your father.”
Cy eyed the ghost sideways, thinking how sweet it would be to push her into the pit, hating what she was thinking, but thinking it all the same. “I was waiting for you to come round to this,” she said. “Thought it might be more along the lines of What if you came home one day and found a big hairy sweaty Xenoid Gloop forcing its attentions on your father — but you’ve come round to it anyhow. My father — my mother too when she was alive – knew what they were getting into by bringing a modified child into being for a predetermined purpose.”
“That’s beside the point, Cy. Your father loves you regardless of your origins. Your brothers too.”
“And I love them. We’re one big happy family, now lacking a mother-figure, who sent me off to war before I was even born.”
“Why are you giving your father such pain?”
“I am not my father’s daughter.”
“Yes you are. You’re a daughter, a sister, even an aunt.”
“They’ll get over it. Before I was conceived my parents knew there was a good chance they’d lose me. C’est la guerre, Josephine.”
“But they haven’t lost you. You’re still alive.”
“And you’re not!” said Cy. She jumped up and stalked off.
Halfway back to her wreck she heard a thin, faint concussion beat down from high above like whispered thunder. Starting almost directly overhead something began etching a thin, bluish-white line through the sky.
A ship! she thought. And all at once there was Jos dancing out ahead of her, waving her arms and shouting, “Down here! I’m down here!”
Cy watched her with a vague sense of betrayal, then stared up again, conscious of her position in the open, cursing herself for not having long ago cut out the locator chip implanted behind her ear.
They’ll detect me.
They’ll see me.
They’ll find —
In a confusion of relief and fear, she realized what it was. She’d heard concussions like that before, seen a similar bluish-white line scratch itself across another world’s sky.
And Jos faded away in mid leap.
Three months ago. Shore leave, a day after a prolonged fleet action with Xenoid forces. Some of Utopia Plain’s crew were relaxing at an outdoor café on a Coalition base, fourth world of the newly won star system. At the first thin noise in the sky, Cy looked up, a cup of Dark Arabesque coffee held halfway to her lips.
Captain Brown barely glanced up as the sky opened a bluish-white slit in the east. “Xenoid escape capsule,” he’d said, eating beans and rice.
“How can you tell?” she said, watching the line stretch and curve into the north.
“The colour. Something in the make up of their heat-shields cause it to streak blue-white when it hits an oxygen atmosphere.”
“So, some Gloop thinks it’s having a happy landing after losing its ship,” muttered Lieutenant Frank Peters, the ship’s Second Officer.
“Poor devil,” said the captain.
“Sir, it’s a Gloop.”
“Poor devil all the same.”
About a kilometre away on the tarmac, two Marine helifoils lifted silently into the air like big, grey praying mantises, and began a gentle acceleration into the north. Cy watched them over the rim of her coffee cup until they abruptly changed camouflage to a mottled green-blue and vanished against sky.
No one around the tables spoke or moved.
Lighting in the north, seconds later the thud of blunt thunder.
Frank Peters wet his finger and marked an invisible scoreboard.
“By the way, Cy,” the captain said, bringing everyone’s attention back to the table, “that was some damn fine shooting yesterday. You probably earned Utopia Plain another citation. Well done.”
Cy smiled and blushed. “If the ship’s awarded a citation, Ralph, it’s because the ship earned it. We’re a team.” She sipped Dark Arabesque.
All very well back then to be so at-ease, Cy thought. What she felt now was unease as she watched this other thin blue-white line boom westward across the sky. West, where falls the enemy. West, where lies the Charlie-Sierra cairn.
The air conditioning in the dissection lab struggles against the smell of burnt fat and decay. The Gartino class sitting on raised benches about the slab, watches impassively as the large, furry lump is worked on by their xenobiology instructor, wielding his molecular scalpel with deceptive ease. Jelly layers are folded back, exposing the intricate traceries of the being’s hydraulic system.
“The limbs work by fluids pumped through a network of veins,” says the instructor, pointing. “The legs can change in an instant from stumpy elephant feet to long stilts; the arms can be as thick and strong as girders, and in the next second thin and whip-like. Xenoids are things without bones.”
There was a Xenoid with her now on this planet. A thing without bones, a thing to hate. Cy thought through her options.
There were other survival cairns in safer directions but at greater distances. Could she reach them with the supplies she had? Doubtful. Could she still go west and dodge this Gloop? It was a big enough planet, though she’d heard Xenoids could sense human blood from afar. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But what if the rumours were true? What if it came stilting over the horizon one night – maybe this night – reeking its stale burnt fat smell, blocking out the stars, howling and whistling. What if she topped a hill one day and ran straight into the monster, all hairy jelly? Perhaps the planet wasn’t so big after all.
The sinister bluish-white line faded into the west, leaving her with the certainty it was a problem she’d hoped had been left in space many days ago. Right now it was time to worry about extracting the locator chip from behind her ear. The next intruder in her sky might not be a nightmare incarnate.
It might be human.
The walk back to her freighter was filled again with the same sense of being observed from every broken deck and blind porthole she passed. The wind blew warm and steady from the south-east. Occasionally an opening or piece of jagged metal caught it and cried that same mournful note.
When she arrived back at her own wreck she was surprised to see her stuff just where she’d left it, sitting in the middle of the cabin below the bridge. She’d half expected it to be bobbing its way on spider-back toward the oblong pit. But here were her food packs, canteens, laser and boots, the medikit and the molecular scalpel, and her backpack stretched out to a sleeping bag. Nothing had been touched. But then the Kreengs hadn’t taken much notice of her since that one beyond the ridge had nipped her hand; doubtless a frontier guard.
Sitting cross-legged on the deck, she picked up the molecular scalpel, rubbing a thumb across its blade. It would part her skin and the flesh beneath without blood. It would extract the locator chip effortlessly, painlessly. But once the locator chip was cut out she didn’t have the implements to replace it. Once she removed it she might as well use the scalpel to carve DESERTER into her forehead.
Not that it mattered. Best do it now. If the coalition forces were to win the Battle of Beta Electra and ships be spared from active defence, they’d be certain to launch a system-wide search for their missing shuttle. And even if they didn’t win and Beta Electra was overrun by the enemy, she knew they’d still make the effort one day.
Now. It had to be now. Then she would disappear and humanity would know her no more.
She pushed the scalpel up behind her ear.
The cabin dimmed as something blocked one of the two portholes — Jos’s face pressed close to the glass, watching her. The eyes were wide and red, her lips parted in eager anticipation, her auburn hair flung out and wild in a silently shrieking wind. The spectre’s whole expression, wide eyes and turned up mouth, was Do it! Do it! Do it! Cy stared back at the face, for the first time fearing the ghost. For an insane moment she was sure this was not the same pushing, bullying spectre of the mind that had followed her since the raft, but an evil entity from some spiritual outer darkness mocking her with a beloved likeness.
The scalpel dropped from her hand. Her eyes met the face at the glass. The face continued to stare, to take on tints of green about the taut features, to part its lips in a malign grin, to part a bit more and a bit more and a bit more until Cy was sure it was going to rip across with a hideous tearing sound, become a gulf of darkness out of which would wail that mournful wind-borne cry that haunted the plain.
She flew at the porthole, flinging her fists against the glass.
The ghost laughed a wicked cackle with a mouth open too wide.
Cy raced up on deck, rushing into blinding sunlight where laugher echoed across the plain. She gripped the railing all corroded and looked down the side of the ship. Jos was not there.
No, Jos was behind her, hands on hips, grinning and naked, bleeding from slowly fissuring rents in her head and body. She said, “See me as I am, Cy, see me as I am!”
Cy closed her eyes, covering them with her hands, her final vision of Jos a mess of seeping red lines criss-crossing, spreading and meeting, breaking her into pieces. She could smell cold vacuum, and for an instant was back in the asteroid belt, back in her little scouter shaped like an egg, fragile as an egg, hammered with rocks …
“I’m coming for you, Cy,” said the dark behind her hands.
“I’m creeping towards you, my love.”
Cy charged forward, yelling, eyes still covered.
A dull concussion, a thick spray of sticky warmth, the sensation of being hit with chunks of cold meat — in the body, in the face, in the mouth.
She gained the companionway, jumping the steps three at a time in her blind downward run.
Something caught her calf. She tumbled, sure it was a hand, sure it was a dead girl’s hand. Balling herself up instinctively, she rolled. At the bottom, on her feet again, she belted along a corridor, gasping, scrambling around corners with something at her back.
She slammed the heavy hatch behind her as if it were the lightest plywood.
Upended a canteen over her head, rubbing water into hair and face.
Swigged, swilled, spat.
Threw off her bloodied clothes as if they were aflame.
Huddled into an angle of the room. Laser snatched up. Swung at portholes. At the door. All around.
No one peered in through the glass. Nothing entered at the door.
For many minutes she stayed like that, her aching back and shoulders to the wall, bloodied knees under her chin, eye sighting along the gun barrel — wet, scared, shivering, hurting. Any moment now the red jigsaw horror would come stalking in.
The sun shone brightly through the portholes. The wind gusted once against the wreck and was still.
Presently her nerve returned. She let her gaze slip to the floor where her clothes lay in a shaft of porthole sunlight. Inching out from the wall she nudged them with a toe. They were clean.
Still shaky, she tended her bruises and grazes, then dressed. While pulling on her boots she found the molecular scalpel lying forgotten on the deck. She laid it aside.
Later. She’d do it later.
Cy spent the better part of the night not sleeping and part of the following morning sitting by the single porthole of her cabin, staring out at the plain, thinking of Jos.
She’d been a second year Martian Star Corps cadet when Cy met her in an astrogation class. Though this had not been their first meeting.
They’d looked at each other that first scholastic morning with “Weren’t you at …” and “Didn’t I meet you when …” expressions. Because no Martian forgets the day they perform the Touching Mars Ritual, nor who they run it with.
They run the Ritual five at a time. Cyleen, an auburn-haired girl and three boys are in the airlock together. They wear gym clothes but are bare footed. Their breathing, deep and slow, hyperventilating to flush their blood streams with oxygen, is the only sound. Each twelve year old is tense, excited, full of pleasurably anticipation and just a little scared. But for their breathing they are quiet. They watch the column of lights against the outer door, indicating pressure dropping fast. They can feel it in their ears, behind their eyes.
Goose flesh stands out on arms and legs. It’s cold in the airlock, hovering near zero so as to equalize with the temperature of the high Summer day outside.
No one is forcing any of them to do this. Too late to back out now, but no one is pushing her into it, not Sergeant Kreeng, not Father, not anyone. Cy’s running the Ritual to show she’s a Martian as well as a Spud. To let the planet embrace her, get its sand between her toes, feel it against her skin, to go face-naked into Mars.
She feels her eyes bulge, her left ear to ache. She remembers silly stories of eyes popping out, of bodies exploding. She believes none of them. She doesn’t want to.
The sign flashes Stand By.
They expel their breath as they’ve been told so to avoid lung damage.
The outer door flies open. Five children dash out into a 1/100th atmosphere of carbon dioxide, their blood steams oxygenated. Out across the sand, powdery stuff, fine under foot, their skin tingling and cold. They make for the other building in long, bounding steps, running leaps toward the other airlock, the Ritual’s regulation ten-metre distance away. Everything is red sand and breathlessness. That and ear-aching silence. Cy doesn’t see the space-suited shepherds either side, hardly notices the blurred figures running with her.
The airlock is gained. Five silent runners fling themselves inside. The door slides shut. Cold air, warming, hisses in, returning sound, followed by five gasping mouths and noses, gasping for air, greedy for air; five babbling, laughing, screaming, we-did-it-we-did-it twelve year olds, jumping, hugging, having touched Mars with their bare hands and feet. A couple are clutching trophies of sand in their fists. Cy is grasping the auburn-haired girl and exclaiming, “Let’s do it again!”
So they’d met again three years later in that astrogation class and struck up an instant rapport. Their friendship deepened over time, and later neither could
remember who kissed who first.
Cy stepped out through the hole in the freighter’s starboard side and paused to look around. Nothing moved except saltbush branches in the wind. The hills in the west appeared to float in a blue haze. Distant wrecks shimmered as thermal rollers rippled across the plain.
Satisfied nothing was about to assail her she set out for the oblong pit at the foot of the western hills. If she was going to live on this world she wanted to come to terms with some of its mysteries, even if it meant staying on the plain another day or two, though she felt fit enough now to leave. If she was sparse with her rations she could stretch her time here among the wrecks and still reach the Charlie-Sierra cairn without starving. By then any Xenoid that had landed in that pod-ship might be dead of its own starvation, sickness or injuries.
Well … maybe …
In one of her pockets was the longest roll of bandages she could find in her medikit. In her backpack were two lengths of rusty iron lasered off the deck railing ten minutes earlier and still warm to the touch. The laser pistol itself rested in an inside pocket of her tunic. Not exactly Quick Draw De Gerch, not that it mattered. She was sure she’d smell a Gloop before seeing it.
Arriving at the pit, Cy hammered one of the iron bars into the ground with the other iron bar, tied one end of the long bandage to it, and tugged several times to make sure it was secure. Throwing the other end into the pit, Cy rappelled down four metres of smooth side into the cool dim shadows, stooped and retrieved her bra.
A quick look about the floor of the pit, at the dead saltbush and scraps of mushroom tree, confirmed her idea that it was a refuse hole. This plain of shipwrecks was being kept obsessively clean of all extraneous material by the spiders.
As she was pondering this oddity a trickle of dust tickled the back of her neck. Looking up she was just in time to glimpse spider claws and be hit by falling dirt and rotting vegetation.
“Froob!” she exclaimed.
She wiped dust from her eyes, grimacing. Then, seeing the funny side of it, she chuckled. She’d been hit with the equivalent of a pie in the face, losing all sense of dignity, and had said froob like a kid. Said it to an alien bug who didn’t know any better.
Deep inside a cesspit she began to laugh, first at her situation, then at herself and all her future plans. She laughed and laughed — then abruptly swallowed it in one huge gulp and was suddenly sober.
There’d been a metallic sound from above. She listened and it came again: the sound of claws scraping on the iron spike anchoring her bandage climbing line.
The line began to wriggle.
“Stop it!” she yelled, jumping up.
The scraping and wriggling continued.
“Stop it!” She pulled her laser, fired into the lip of the pit, sending hot dirt spraying back onto her.
The scraping and wiggling paused a second, then continued.
Before she even knew what she was doing the other iron bar was in her right hand, hefting against her palm. A moment of white light in her head; numbers denoting mass, force, trajectory flashed by her mind’s eye.
Then the iron was away, Cy watching it go with her arm still out-flung as if reaching to bring it back.
It cleared the edge of the hole, up and up, arced, plunged to one side and disappeared from sight with a wet crunch.
The line stopped wriggling.
She grabbed it, checked that it still held, and began to climb using feet and knees, hands only to steady herself as Sergeant Kreeng – Old Get It Right – had taught her. The scene at the top was ugly: a skewered spider lying motionless, seeping yellow ooze where the plump abdomen was pierced through, its eight legs folded under, eyestalks collapsed, claws clenched about the anchor spike it had been trying to dislodge.
“Oh, you silly creature,” said Cy to the little corpse. She brushed its fur, ruffling in the wind, and was engulfed by a great sadness. But only part of what she felt was for the spider. Mostly it was for herself. After all she’d done and planned, and after all those arguments with Jos Manxman, she could still kill instantly and effectively, whether it be with a starship’s weaponry system or a piece of iron.
She expected to see Jos appear and throw her words of that morning back at her: I’m no killer. Not any more. Jos did not appear. Neither did any Kreengs come scuttling in, aghast at the murder, claws clicking for revenge. Not that it was murder, she told herself. They weren’t sentient; only bugs, and alien bugs at that.
Likewise it wasn’t a conscious attempt to hide the evidence when she unspiked her victim and placed it in her backpack. She wanted it for examination, yes. And when she scuffed any spilled bodily fluids into the dirt with her boots … that wasn’t destroying evidence. Inbred sense of neatness and order, that was all.
As these rationalizations formulated themselves, another spider crawled by with a load of neatly cut-up salt bush on its back. Cy watched it approach, but it made no sign that it was aware of her crime, that it was aware of her at all. It tipped its load into the pit, turned and crawled off.
As she returned to her freighter she sensed more than ever a growing air of watchfulness about the plain. This feeling came creeping, though nothing was seen and nothing moved among that sprawl of impossible shipwrecks. Too many places for things to hide, too many concealing corners and watching windows and decks above eye level to look down from. In this vast expanse and array of dead vessels, the stillness was dishonest.
She boarded one of these vessels, scrambling in through a hull breech to convince herself no watchers lurked within. As with her own wreck the interiors was devoid of any real detail, ladders and companionways disappearing into hard-packed yellow ground. She climbed to the bridge, devoid of instruments or equipment save voice pipes and an immovable wheel, and crossed to the starboard wing.
Her shout echoed out across the plain and nothing answered save the wind keening through the empty window frames, sounding sometimes like lost voices and sometimes like weeping but hardly ever like the wind.
“Hello!” she called again, and the wind dropped and was still.
Standing there alone in this immense, deliberate silence, it came to her that she was the play thing of unseen forces, a puppet, passive and unimportant.
“Play your games then,” she said to nobody in particular, a raised voice in the silence. “I’ll show you how unimportant I am!”
She ran down the bridge ladder to the deck and, with a violent twist, ratcheted the knurled metal ring on her laser pistol’s barrel to full. She squeezed the firing stud. The pistol blazed a wide beam into the rusty side of a deck-house aft. A hole sizzled into its wall, the metal reddening around it, smoking an acid stink into the air.
Cy swore and dipped the pistol.
“Where the hell’s the focus?” she yelled at the pistol as if it were the pistol’s fault. “It has to be wider!”
The pistol was a Ch’ng Mk 7, an advanced version of the Mk 4 she’d used in her limited small arms training, and not familiar to her. She fumbled to get a proper grip, much preferring a starship’s weaponry system: the rough beauty of the neutron torpedoes, the glittering mirrors of the main lasers: the mental feel of it as she sat at fire control, the ease of response, the big power of it all.
With the focus finally found and opened to its widest, she raised the pistol again, grinning, determined to give the watchers something to watch and vaporize the entire deck-house.
She dropped into a combat crouch, looking left and right.
“Cyleen, you stop that at once!”
A gaunt face, white and bloodless, swam out of the darkness of a window in the deck-house. Its mouth opened and shut, out of sync with its howling words.
“Did I bring you into the world to be a common vandal?”
Cy stared back at it, recognition crashing in on her.
“Don’t you ‘mother’ me, young lady. I meant you for higher things than this. Good god, Cy, after all this time you should know better than to …” The words faded into a sort of jar-jar-jar as the gaunt white face pulled back into the dark in odd little jerks.
“Mother?” Cy whispered, her mind awhirl. She raced to the deck-house, its wall still hot and smouldering, and brandishing her laser peered through its open door at the dim emptiness within. “Who’s there?”
The fright in her voice was loud and brittle as she stood at the threshold, unwilling to step inside. A moment more and she was retreating down ladders and scurrying back through dim interiors to the hull breach and gladly onto the sunlit plain. Cy De Gerch, who would go into battle with a happiness she hated, had become afraid of the dark.
All the hulks seemed to be cantered towards her as she passed. She walked, avoiding their shadows as if they were solid obstructions. Nothing moved on their decks, no ghosts watched from their dark portholes, thought she was sure the ghosts were there. She would go tomorrow, continue her journey to the Charlie-Sierra cairn tomorrow. She was physically well enough now, even if her mind was still cracked wide open. She’d not miss this vast plain with its haunted wrecks, she decided.
What she could do with right now, in her twitchy state of nerves, was a dose of caffeine. Coffee. That was something she did miss.
She stopped and closed her eyes, trying to remember the aroma and taste of a mug of Dark Arabesque, hot from Utopia Plain’s galley. She hadn’t tasted coffee of any bean since she made a brew for George and herself in the shuttle.
No. Not even then.
“Oh, some piece of space junk. Won’t come within a hundred thousand K,” she’d said with all the certainty of someone making a ghastly mistake. She kicked back in the shuttle’s jump seat. “Got any coffee?”
“There’s a little galley at the back of the cabin.” George started to unclip his seat belt.
Cy stopped him. “Let me do it. Officers need some reason for existing.”
She unclipped and did a back-flip out of her seat, floating herself across to the food locker and cooker jammed into an obscure aft corner and began juggling essence tubes and mugs — one of them marked ‘George’ – with mouthpieces attached to their covers, the only way to safely drink in freefall.
“How do you like it?”
“Strong, thanks, Cy. White, semi-sweet.”
“Yes, me too. Oh, by the way, there’s some chocolate in my vacsuit bag.”
“Um … that’s all right. I’ll pass.”
“It’s Earth chocolate, George. I saved it from McMurdo Sound.”
“Oh … well, in that case, thanks.”
“You’re not alone. I think Martian chocolate’s crap too.”
He laughed then said, “Are you all right there?”
“Fine. I’ve worked a kitchen in micro-g a hundred times before — back home whenever the artificial gravity kicked out.”
“Micro-g? On Mars?”
“You’re a Spud?”
“Spud?” She glanced over her shoulder.
“Sorry. No offence.“
“None taken.” Cy waved an arm dismissively and knocked a hovering milk tube spinning. “You just caught me by surprise. Haven’t been called a Spud in years. No, we don’t mind the name. Sort of proud of it, I suppose. It’s what comes from living on a moon that looks like a twenty-eight kilometre long potato.” She went back to jetting water into the two mugs. “Not that I’ve ever seen a real potato.”
“You’ve not missed anything.” George picked up Cy’s vacsuit pack, rummaging past gloves and soft helmet in search of Earth chocolate. “They’re over-rated and starchy.”
“Have you ever been to Phobos?”
“Only the once.”
“No, Hall. The freight depot.”
“My father used to work there. Hall’s the industrial end. Stickney Crater is the suburban end. If you have to live on a rock, live on the best bit.”
“Er … Cy.”
“Can’t find the chocolate?” She turned to see he already had the chocolate out, but had left it floating in mid air. He was studying the scan again.
“That piece of space junk has just altered towards us by six degrees.”
Cy secured the mugs to a stay-put and and, kicking against the rear wall, floated herself back to look over his shoulder. “Has your autopilot used the drive to correct course? Gravity flux can effect nickel-iron meteors in freakish ways.”
“Negative, ma’am. We’re steady on course and the drive is locked down in stand-by mode.”
His return to formal address highlighted Cy’s growing concern over the contact. She somersaulted into her seat and buckled in. “Range?”
“One point three million kilometres.”
“When will your sensors be able to give a positive ID?” Even as she spoke she saw the image on the scan make another minor alteration towards them.
“At about one million.”
Though the scan still didn’t know what it was yet, Cy had an idea that she did. “George, does this craft have any weapons?”
“It does not. Well … apart from a hand laser in my panic bag.”
“An emergency pack stowed under my seat. In case I ever have to bail out.”
“OK. Can you crank any more speed out of the drive?”
“Not really. The mass to power ratio is just about even.”
She looked again at the little white dot on the scan and suspicion became cool certainty. At that same moment contact ID came up on the pilot console, so that George said to Cy as Cy said to George:
About the Author
Rick Kennett has had horror and SF stories published in several magazines, anthologies and podcasts including Dunesteef, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. He won two Parsec Awards for podcast stories in 2013, a year that also saw the publication of his novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. One of those Parsec Awards was for Cast of Wonders Episode 71, Now Cydonia, one of the several Martian Ranger Cy De Gerch stories.
When not toiling at the day job in the transport industry, he can be found wandering cemeteries – necrotourism – or working as the podcast reporter for the Ghosts & Scholars M R James Newsletter.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.